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Math and Mentoring Mingled in 'M3' Program for Boys

Algebra readiness is the focus of a program for African-American boys in Central Virginia.

Called Math, Men, Mission (or "M3"), the program was developed by Robert Berry, assistant professor of mathematics education in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, along with Stan Trent, assistant dean of diversity and equity, and Kateri Thunder and Oren McClain, doctoral students in mathematics education.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

"Access to advanced mathematics courses in middle school often determines whether students will have opportunities to take advanced math courses in high school," Berry said. Yet less than 20 percent of African-American eighth-graders take Algebra I.

Research also shows that the number of African-American boys enrolling in upper-level mathematics courses during their high school years is decreasing. These are the courses that serve as a gateway to college majors in science, mathematics and engineering, Berry said – all fields in which African-Americans are underrepresented.

M3 kicked off last summer with a two-week math camp for 33 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade boys in Albemarle County. Under way again this summer, through July 2, the program has grown in number and popularity, Berry said, and has expanded its number of teachers and its curriculum to include cutting-edge technology at Curry, called digital fabrication, and morning leadership meetings with the students.

This summer the program has been expanded to two cohorts, Berry said; one for the 20 returning boys already in the program, and another for a new group of 32 rising fifth- through eighth-graders.

The staff now includes teachers from Albemarle County Public Schools – two middle school teachers from Jack Jouett and Sutherland middle schools, an Albemarle High School teacher and a recently retired teacher from Stony Point Elementary. Also assisting are four Curry Ph.D. instructional technology students and two Curry teacher-ed students, Berry said.

In the mornings, M3 students are in the classroom doing math and engaging in hands-on math games, Berry said. "In the afternoon, we are doing fabrication that correlates to our mornings' problem sets," he said.

Using Curry's new digital fabricator would "give the least amount of surface area and thus cost the least amount to ship," Berry explained.

Students spent the first two days of the program getting used to the software that operates the digital fabricator. Since then, they've been sending their designs to the fabricator to produce various 3D prototypes that test their ideas, based on the math problems they've been assigned in class. Bridge-building is coming soon, Berry said.

Students have been "highly engaged and excited" about the addition of fabrication to the M3 curriculum, Berry said.

Another addition to the program is a morning meeting where "we discuss three overarching ideas: being a good student, good person and good leader," Berry said. He gave examples of ways the group reinforces building character. "If you see someone in need, you help them out without being asked. Open the door for someone. Even if it's not your trash, pick it up; address adults as 'yes sir, yes ma'am, no sir, no ma'am.' Be polite."

During lunch, M3 students meet with a member of 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, a group devoted to providing educational and financial support for young black male students, to hear and ask questions about his career. Recently, Jay James, the sports and program director for News Radio 1070 WINA and host of a popular sports talk radio show, joined them for lunch. "The kids really enjoyed that," Berry said.

Berry acknowledged U.Va. Curry colleague Glen Bull, who provided leadership for the program's fabrication technology, and Bernard Hairston, executive director of community engagement with the Albemarle County Public Schools, for their support of the M3 program.

M3 encourages algebraic thinking in an age-appropriate manner, exploring its symbolic nature in everyday-life contexts, Berry said. "The boys engage in mathematics that is focused on developing strategies," he said, "rather than focusing on finding the right answer."

Berry has conducted research on children's computational estimation, teachers' mathematics content knowledge and equity issues in mathematics education. One of his recent publications examined eight successful African-American middle school boys who gained access to upper-level mathematics.

M3's two-week summer program is being held at Murray High School. Its closing ceremony will take place July 2 at the Holiday Inn on Route 29 North.

But the program doesn't end then.

The boys are assigned mentors from 100 Black Men. Throughout the school year, the boys continue meeting with their mentors on a weekly basis, as well as participating in monthly math learning sessions, Berry said.

"Some kids may just need a boost to gain entry into Algebra I," he said, and he hopes the ongoing support provided by M3 will do the trick.

Along with U.Va., Albemarle County Public Schools and State Farm are partners of the program.

— By Lynn Bell and Rebecca Arrington

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